Fiji highlands a step into the past

By Juliet Rowan

My heart went into my mouth when I saw the torrent of brown water rushing across the ford.

The drive across the swollen river was our last obstacle to reach a remote Fijian village after struggling along rough, unsealed roads for what seemed like forever.

When we got to the other side I felt admiration - and pity - for the people who live in Navala and the difficult journey they face any time they want to go anywhere.

Navala is the last village in Fiji, a place where all the houses are traditional thatched bures, and one of the hundreds of villages you see when you fly over the main island of Viti Levu.

What is striking is how remote many of the villages are, and how far they penetrate into the mountainous interior.

But few are as remote as Navala, an hour's drive inland from the nearest town and at least three hours from the international airport at Nadi.

A wrong turn meant our journey took a lot longer, though the mistake was hardly surprising, because there were few signposts and the roads all looked the same: steep, muddy, and full of potholes.

Fiji's roads are in a sad state of disrepair, particularly the interior roads, but luckily our guide, Anare Senibulu, was comfortable negotiating the bone-rattling terrain and narrow wooden bridges.

I, on the other hand, was filled with dread every time I saw a sign warning that you cross a bridge at your own peril.

The rivers were running high after a big thunderstorm the night before, adding to the nightmare thought that our four-wheel drive might plunge into a torrent.

I was also starting to wonder if Navala existed, such was the time the trip was taking and the distance from civilisation.

Finally, after crossing yet another ridge, we saw a cluster of thatched roofs nestled in a valley.

From a distance, the village looked medieval, like something out of Lord of the Rings, although we learned later it had satellite TV and a few flush toilets.

Surrounded by lush mountains and waterfalls, Navala is home to 800 people and before the 2006 coup attracted many tourists to its unique bures.

They would come on group tours from Nadi and stay overnight, providing a valuable source of income for the villagers.

But since the military seized power tourism has declined, and only a handful of visitors make the journey to Navala, most, like us, relying on individual guides.

Without a local guide, it would have been difficult, as the elders spoke only limited English and their permission was needed to look around.

Anare negotiated with them for more than half-an-hour before we were given a tour, costing F$25 ($22.29) each, including permission to take photos.

Sylvia Amele, who showed us around, explained that the bures had to be replaced every six months because they did not withstand the weather longer.

She said gangs of men were constantly in the forest cutting down the coconut trees, flax and other plants needed.

"It's very hard work for the men to build the houses."

Traditional thatched bures have all but died out in Fiji because they are so labour-intensive. Most villages now have sturdier homes of concrete or corrugated iron.

The bures at Navala had intricate reed and bamboo ceilings and soft woven mats on the floor. After the tour, we sat and drank kava in one, enjoying its natural insulation from the 30C heat. School children approached and told us they loved Navala, despite their obvious lack of material possessions.

To an outsider, the village was picturesque but poor, with pigs, chickens and goats grazing among the shelters.

But Anare pointed out that poverty comes in many forms, and villagers in Fiji do not necessarily view themselves as lacking, thanks to their wealth of food and family support.

That certainly appeared true at Vatukacevaceva, another village we visited in the interior of northern Viti Levu.

There, the villagers welcomed us with warm smiles and handshakes, and a large bowl of kava.

After showing us around (for free), they told us stories about the village, all the while offering us more of the ritual drink.

Elder Samuela Sema said the mountains above Vatukacevaceva were the birthplace of all Fijians and home to an eight-headed snake god, Degei. He said pilgrims still came looking for the god, using the village as a base for treks into the mountains.

Our visit to Navala ended abruptly with people worriedly yelling for us to leave because a flood was on its way.

I held my breath as we again braved the ford. Ten minutes later, the heavens opened and the roads turned to swamps.

Juliet Rowan and Alan Gibson travelled to Fiji courtesy of Air Pacific and the Fiji Visitors Bureau.

GETTING THERE: Air Pacific has 14 flights a week from New Zealand to Fiji. See www.airpacific.com or ring 0800 800 178.

TOURING: A four-wheel-drive vehicle and Fijian guide is recommended for visiting Navala. Although it is hard to find dedicated tours there, inbound tour operators such as Pacific Destinationz can be approached at hotels in Fiji to organise trips to the village.

FURTHER INFORMATION: For information about visiting Fiji see the Fiji Visitors Bureau website at www.bulafiji.com or ring (09) 376 2533.

- NZ Herald

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